Can a small school prevail? The FTH Division 5 playoff preview
As the competitive balance experiment has played out in San Diego, an uncomfortable truth has emerged in the section's lowest division.
Once the playground of small schools, schools with larger enrollment, with few exceptions, have been able to sink to the Division 5 level and rebound against those small schools.
The most notable exceptions include the 2019 and 2017 finals, which featured two small schools in each game.
This season, a small school has the top seed: Saint Joseph Academy of San Marcos. Can they fend off the rest of the field for the CIF title, or will one of the larger schools such as El Cajon Valley or Castle Park revive their programs at the lower level?
Who's the top seed?
St. Joseph Academy
The tiny Catholic school in San Marcos has only 95 students in the high school portion of the K-12 school, but about 10 of those comprise a solid basketball team. Led by the two-headed monster scoring duo of senior guards Mikey Murray and Daniel Valenzuela - who could start just about anywhere in San Diego - the Crusaders can beat you in a variety of ways. Watch out for 6-8 freshman forward Justice Ahiafor, who is a rising star in the section.
Who are the contenders?
El Cajon Valley
Yes, the Braves went winless in the Grossmont Valley League, but unlike last year, in which the Braves were repeatedly blown out in a 1-win season, this year's team competed hard, losing four games by a combined 12 points in league play. Additionally, the Braves have already faced a number of D5 teams during the nonleague schedule - and beat them, including Castle Park twice, Classical Academy twice and Southern California Yeshiva in the season opener -- a game that three months later looks like a potential finals matchup.
Southern California Yeshiva
Head Coach Ray Mills departed El Cajon Valley to return to the small school he built into a powerhouse three years ago, and didn't skip a beat. After losing his first three games by a combined 9 points, things looked tough, but as it turns out, those three losses were to playoff teams, including 3-point losses to El Capitan and High Tech High SD, a team that just beat Madison. Mills team would lose only one more game the rest of the way and finished 15-4 after a dominant run through the Patriot League.
The Trojans finished the season playing their best basketball, finishing season sweeps of Mar Vista and Sweetwater for a surprising third-place finish in the South Bay League. Led by athletic wing Jose Jackson (a standout football player), Castle Park has size, length and speed enough to play with anyone. The only thing standing in their way? They're on the same side of the bracket as El Cajon Valley, which has beaten twice this season.
San Diego Jewish Academy
Coming into the season, new head coach Kevin Poniatoski wasn't sure what he had, except that his team would be beefy: several player's from the school's standout 8-man football team were also basketball returners. As it turned out, that mix of size and depth would lead the Lions to a 10-0 run through the Ocean League. At 14-4, two of their losses came to other favorites in the division: a 12-point loss to Jewish rival Yeshiva, and a one-point loss to Castle Park. The Lions are dangerous.
Who's the dark horse
The Jaguars (7-19) don't have a great record and have lost to some of the D5 teams, but they will be a tough out. They gave Yeshiva a very good game in a 57-54 loss, and squeaked out a win against a decent Tri-City Christian team late in the season. There's enough there to put a scare into a top-seed if they aren't ready.
Who are the players to watch?
Mikey Murray, 6-1 G, St Joseph Academy
Daniel Valenzuela, 6-1 G, St. Joseph Academy
Justice Ahiafor, 6-8 F, St. Joseph Academy
Greg Eisman, 5-10 G, Southern California Yeshiva
Ilan Horn, 6-0 G, Southern California Yeshiva
Grant Lieberman, 6-0 G, Southern California Yeshiva
Josh Posnock, G, San Diego Jewish Academy
Jose Jackson, 6-5 F, Castle Park
Ronye Green, 5-8 G, Castle Park
Allen Freeman, 5-8 G, El Cajon Valley
LD Willis, 6-1 Sr. G, El Cajon Valley
Jahsir Bosley, 6-0 So. G, El Cajon Valley
Presley Bruskotter, 6-1 G, Classical Academy
Brandon Charlens, 6-1 G, Horizon Prep
Johnny Sutton, 6-2 G, Coastal Academy
Diego Gardner, 6-0 G, Bayfront Charter
Final 4: El Cajon Valley vs St. Joseph Academy; Southern California Yeshiva vs. Valley Center
Final: St. Joseph Academy defeats Yeshiva